Flamboyant fishes evolved an explosion of color as seas rose and fell – Science News Magazine

Fairy wrasses are swimming jewels, flitting and flouncing about coral reefs. The finger-length fishes’ brash, vibrant courtship displays are meant for mates and rivals, and a new study suggests that the slow waxing and waning of ice sheets and glaciers may be partly responsible for such a variety of performances. 

A new genetic analysis of more than three dozen fairy wrasse species details the roughly 12 million years of evolution that produced their vast assortment of shapes, colors and behaviors. And the timing of these transformations implies that the more than 60 species of fairy wrasses may owe their great diversity to cyclic sea level changes over the last few millions of years, scientists report February 23 in Systematic Biology.

Within the dizzying assembly of colorful reef fishes, fairy wrasses (Cirrhilabrus) can’t help but stand out. They are the most species-rich genus in the second most species-rich fish family in the ocean, says Yi-Kai Tea, an ichthyologist at the University of Sydney. 

“That is quite a bit of biodiversity,” says Tea, who notes that new fairy wrasse species are identified every year. Despite this taxonomic footprint, Tea says, scientists knew “next to nothing” about the fairy wrasses’ evolutionary history or why there were so many species.

To fill this knowledge gap, Tea and his colleagues
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